Thursday, August 31, 2006

The old virtual reference hang up

The latest issue of CLC's CONNtext is headlined by the start of the InfoAnytime project. InfoAnytime is the descendant of the Askyourlibrary project, which I coordinated in the first few years that it was run by Bibliomation (from inception in 2001 to 2004).

Now, many of you know that I hung up my hat from the virtual reference game when I left CT for CA. Not that I didn't love the concept & believe in its power, but other opportunities and passions called. [As an aside, I should add that my sister continued and expanded in the virtual reference world - eventually becoming one of (formerly LSSI)'s best v ref librarians and a mentor for those in training - she even won the last Samuel Swett Green national Virtual Reference excellence award and cowrote an article on the topic that appeared in March 2005's Public Libraries magazine... Can you tell that I'm proud? And yes, she used to be a very good in-person ref librarian in CT libraries! She now lives & works out of GA, but it was CT libraries that inspired her (she worked in circulation at a certain capitol region library and adored it) to go on to U. of Pittsburgh & get her MLS (with honors). So, next time you fear who's on the other end of that virtual reference call representing your library, be aware that it could well be someone like my sister - someone like you, a cracker-jack librarian!]

But I had 1 MAJOR frustration with the virtual reference game when I coordinated Askyourlibrary - every time I tried to convince libraries to join I faced tremendous opposition from librarians who feared that somehow virtual reference would render them obsolete or outsourced. Those of you who've been on any side of a v ref transaction know, however, that this fear is COMPLETELY unwarranted. Not only is a v ref transaction not the same as an in-person reference session (v ref is necessarily much briefer, less in-depth, only a starting point or quick reference transaction... but patrons love it), but v ref librarians quite often refer their patrons back in-house to their libraries. V ref can actually raise the profile and increase the usage stats of your in-house reference! Many people who never realized the level of research help that was freely available to them through their libraries encounter it for the first time through v ref. This raises the awareness among members of the public that librarians are cutting edge "information mavens" (to paraphrase The Shifted Librarian).

So, clearly virtual reference is not competition for in-house reference, instead it can be a uniquely powerful partnership. There were many librarians who insisted, however, that the virtual reference service ONLY be made available in their non-open hours. I attribute this to that inappropriate sense of competition that the in-house librarians had in regards to virtual reference service.

My biggest beef with this attitude is that it is not a user-centered decision, it's a librarian-centered decision. And we exist for - and I remind you, at the will of - our users. As an end-user, I like online services partially because I don't have to think about when they will be open. If I arrive at any online service/site for the first time & find it "closed", I will never return. There's too many other options out there - options for services that are open 24x7. And don't forget that many people use online services from their desks at work every day. They can't necessarily make a phone call out to their public library, but they can - on their breaks - quickly & easily take advantage of their public's library's virtual reference service. But only if it's open.

As we make choices about what library services we offer and how we offer them, we should always be starting from the end-user perspective. So what if we are afraid that the service will somehow cut into our in-house reference (which I think I've shown pretty clearly, it will not)? That's our fear, as librarians. That's got nothing to do with users' needs & desires - which is what we should focus on.

So please, fellow librarians, DON'T TAKE WHAT'S WONDERFUL TO USERS ABOUT VIRTUAL REFERENCE -- THE FACT THAT IT IS AVAILABLE 24x7 -- AND THROW IT AWAY. In an era of Google and mashups, our end-users (aka patrons/potential patrons) are more empowered in information retrieval than ever. We have to face that fact and figure out how we can play a role in the new informational universe. That's what's at stake here. So play a role - a role the users will embrace - think about offering virtual reference. But don't offer virtual reference unless you're ready, willing, and able to do it in a way that doesn't alienate users - that doesn't put a closed sign up during certain times of the day.

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